Somalis in North Karelia making way to a multicultural periphery


Some weeks ago Gendered Mobilities Conference was organised at the University of Eastern University. I was part of the organising committee of the conference and also gave a talk at one of its panel discussions. I though it a good idea to idea to post the talk here as a blog text since I do not have much material in English. When reading the text you soon realise that it is a talk, not a blog text (as it for example lacks proper referencing) , but I hope you find it interesting still.


This talk is based on materials that I have collected together with the colleagues in three different projects. The first one, which looked into the contexts of citizenship and integration of Somalis in Finland and in the U.S., has already finished while my post-doc project and the one on everyday security are still continuing.

The material consists of interviews with active Somalis as well as people who are dealing with immigrant integration in North Karelia. I have also collected and analysed media material from both traditional media, like newspapers, as well as on-line sources. In addition, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork and observed different encounters that involve migrants, authorities and activists of non-governmental organisations.

My presentation is about citizenship and contradictory expectations that are directed towards Somalis in Finnish society through a case study concerning the settlement of Somali refugees in a small eastern Finnish town. I am doing this by using the concept of act of citizenship which is used to highlight the fact that people who do not necessarily have a formal citizenship can act as citizens, meaning that that they can ‘constitute themselves as citizens – or, better still, as those to whom the right to have rights is due’.

My political as well as academic interest is to highlight the experiences of those people who have migrated into Finland and now live in rural or peripheral regions. There is great research on the citizenisation processes of migrants as well as the related challenges but I believe that more attention needs be paid to social and other types of contexts, concrete interactions and institutional settings in which the models and ideals of citizenship are put into practice. The welfare state has emerged as an as an important arena for citizenship studies but we need even more detailed analysis on local and municipal level. Currently, municipalities are key actors mediating the relationship between the state and its citizens, especially in relation to welfare rights but also otherwise.

When I say that we need to understand what is happening in rural areas and in periphery, I am not saying that these two are necessarily the same thing. By periphery I refer to those areas in Finland which have lost a great deal of their population since 1960s due to urbanization and whose identities are very much influenced by the questions such as who are staying and who leave.

Thus far relatively little attention has been given to migrants who have settled in rural towns and other parts of the countryside. In fact, the processes of multiculturalization and internationalization are often talked about as something that is typical to metropolis, something that happens in the city. Yet there are rural locations in Finland with relatively high number of residents of foreign origin.

Their presence became particularly visible in 2015 when, first, asylum centres were set up in different parts of the Finland, usually in the buildings that were left empty when the state had withdrawn its services and presence from the town, and after that when the talks started about the possibility to relocate asylum seekers and refugees in rural areas as to avoid problems associated with larger migrant settlements in urban centers, including segregation, the rising costs of housing and the lack of social services.

Lieksa presents a typical case of a peripheral town whose economic structure has completely changed and the population has dereased by half since the 1960s. It is situated some 100 kilometres from Joensuu towards the border. In 1980 there were over 19 000 people living in Lieksa, now the number is little over 12 000. However, in 2009 the situation changed significantly when people of Somali background started to move into Lieksa. In 2008, only a few Somalis resided in Lieksa, while in 2014 the number had increased to over 400. The first ones moved in from a nearby reception centre while those who followed them came from different parts of Finland and also from Somalia through family-unification.

People of Somali origin received a mixed welcome in Lieksa. Some locals welcomed this new vitality and the associated economic potential, but the majority were suspicious of the newcomers. A small but vocal group also reacted aggressively by picking up fights and vandalizing the property of the newcomers. Many Finnish people now know Lieksa because it has made the headlines due to public displays of anger and resentment towards the Somali minority.

As part of my research I have observed what has happened in Lieksa since the Somalis arrived there. Together with my colleague we have analysed different materials to understand the development of the relationship between long-term residents and newcomers in Lieksa. We have come to understand the settlement process as a ‘discursive boxing match’ during which the attempts by Somalis to establish themselves as citizens capable of handling their own affairs have been, time after time, met with verbal or physical blows by their opponents. The opponents are not just local people but also anti-immigration activists from all over the country who have tried to influence the situation particularly through social media. The majority of the town’s inhabitants, however, seem to be standing in the circle, bearing witness to the struggle going on in front of their eyes.

In Lieksa the Finnish Somalis face ‘othering’, such as instances of name-calling and intimidating staring as well as being treated with disrespect by locals or local authorities, and in the traditional and new media. We have also come across a series of appalling descriptions of racially motivated crime involving, for instance, attempted and actual physical attacks, damage to property, especially to the cars owned by Somalis, and even a bomb threat to the premises of the social services agency that provide assistance and guidance to Somali residents.

Many Somalis have told us that they came to Lieksa because they like peaceful small town life. They consider it as a safe environment in which to raise children, and where, to beging with, there were much needed services, like language training and assistance with family unification, available for them. However, due to harassment, many of them have decided to move out. On the other hand, their willingness to move to the south of Finland is also due to high unemployment in North Karelia which affects everyone and particularly those of immigrant background. On the other hand, many Somalis have made a decision to stay in Lieksa. They have become activists and stakeholders in the direction of active citizenship.

In this fairly hostile environment, you cannot rely on the municipality to do things for you but if you want to get something done you have to do it yourself, preferably in cooperation either with public or civic actors. One example of such activism is the Somali Families Association which was set up in Lieksa a couple of years ago. It consists of active group of people who are not only of Somalian background but also Finns and representatives of other nationalities too who have conducted different types of activities. They have bought and renovated a house, bought a car so that women can go shopping as there is no public transport in Lieksa, they have organized activities for families and children, they provide counselling services for migrants and so on.

All their activities aim to solve problems that the oganisation and its active members have identified in their local surroundings.

One example that worries the people  is that Somali women do not have that many opportunities to exercise and because of religious and/or cultural reasons they cannot go swimming to the local pool when there are men around. In 2015 therefore the Somali families Association contacted the municipality of Lieksa and asked if they could arrange some pool time only for women. The representatives of the municipality denied this request and then the association decided that they will rent the pool for a couple of hours every Sunday when female members of their association could go swimming in private. Very soon rumours started to circle that women were not behaving properly in the pool but some of them had jumped into pool or they had used swimming belts as swimming aid. Without consulting the Association, the municipality then decided that some of their staff members will review the CCTV footage from the pool and since there were these violations of rules they then got in touch with the association. The women of the association who had been using the pool were outraged. They were very unhappy, some of them even outraged that strange men had watched them swimming and also they did not like the fact that the representatives of the muncipality did not contact the Association as soon as they heard of the rumours.

At that stage, also media got involved and people started to take sides. This was a hay day for local racists and misogynists. The language used of these women was terrible. Like in many other similar cases it was asked, why are these women bothered about someone watching them – as they are so ugly anyway.

When the initial shock was over the association negotiated with the municipality and it was agreed that the municipality will conduct a survey assessing the need for women only pool time. I took part in the meeting and tried to make a point that the survey should also try to reach those people who are not using the pool at the moment since it is quite obvious that those who use the pool now are not those who need this kind of activity the most.

Still the survey was conducted at the ticket office of the pool. Out of 53 respondeds 48 said that there is no need for such thing. The Committee of Culture and Leisure decided that they will not organise this service. This decision was praised in the local newspaper Lieksan lehti. They wrote:

The Committee of Culture and Leisure made a rational decision not to reserve any specific time for female swimmers. Organising time for women would have closed the pool for other user-groups like families with children, exactly during peak hour, like in the evening or on Saturday. It is part of Finnish culture that everybody goes together to pools and beaches. Dividing pool time on the basis of gender is not an equal decision.

The reason why I chose to tell this story is that it exemplifies many of the things that I have identified as problematic in this context. There are rumours, mistrust, lack of communication, and vague yet somehow very firm notions and representations of Finnish and Somali culture. In addition, we see local community ordering the behavior of minority women and quite forcefully directing them towards the so called Finnish values and behavioral patterns. What you do not see however is how personalized these encounters are. For example, this piece by Lieksan lehti is not locally perceived as something in a newspaper but it is interpreted as an opinion of the editor-in-chief whose opinions on the matter are then discussed by her name. In smaller communities like Lieksa even one person may have a lot of influence over how things go.

I hope that this narrative has exemplified some of the ways Somalis in Lieksa act as citizens by negotiating about, for example, the right to use municipal services in their own terms.

Unfortunately, it also shows how the Finnish society misrecognizes their acts of citizenship. In my opinion the Association is making claims for equity in order to make their lives livable in the periphery. The local community however interprets these claims as contestations of equality which here is understood as a principle of making sure that everyone gets the same things. And that these are not just any things but they have to be Finnish things. We like to talk about two-way integration by which we mean the ideal that migrants change as they acquire more knowledge of Finnish society and simultaneously society changes as the population is becoming more diverse. However, in practice, the message often is “maassa maan tavalla”,  ie. when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

If you wish to read more about Lieksa please read our article in the Nordic Journal of Migration Research.